Trinath Mishra on his refusal to give in to political meddling, which led to his decision to bow out of the agency after just 14 months
The Bofors case was mishandled right from the beginning. This was a case I inherited when I took over the directorship of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 1998. I found that it was not fairly investigated. Initially, there was every effort to pin the guilt on certain people, and later, when they found this was not happening, they started clutching at straws. Therefore, it had to come to its sorry end.
I personally feel that Rajiv Gandhi was not involved in the Bofors scandal at all. He was made a target by everyone. The only mistake he committed was that he might have had some idea or notion of what was going on and he chose not to share this information. I do not know who advised him, but he surely was not very experienced in political matters. Personally I feel that he was a clean man, a man of good intentions. I wished he had survived and come back. His continuance would surely have changed politics for the better. That is my estimate of the man I served earlier in 1989 as director of the Special Protection Group, the Prime Minister’s security head.
In 1998, I had joined the CBI as a special director, and after the retirement of DR Karthikeyan, who was finishing with the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, I took over as its head. My directorship came along with Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister.
I was with the CBI for a short duration of 14 months, but during my directorship, four main cases were wrapped up in good time. One was the dropsy death cases caused by adulterated mustard oil. The other was the theft of idols from Shivpuri. Scams such as Bofors and fodder were inherited from the past, the difference being that during my time, we forcefully finalised and prosecuted them. Another case we handled was of the Bombay riots.
The fodder scam was capably and fearlessly investigated by Upendranath Biswas. He was hounded by the Government as well as the department at this point. Upen was my colleague when I was Superintendent of Police, CBI, in 1978-79, so I knew him well. I chose to stand by him and told him not to bother about the pressure. Now, he’s a minister in the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal.
Luckily, the courts played a positive role during his investigation. He had committed a minor mistake, calling the Army for help directly. But this was done in good faith, so instead of taking him to task, it could have been condoned or overlooked. But the Government tried to put him on the mat on this very issue. Luckily, he got the matter quashed by the High Court. Despite all these cases being investigated during my stint, I found that I could not get along well with the powers that be because they wanted certain cases to be handled in a certain manner. There was interference from the Prime Minister’s Office, the state minister for personnel, the Home Minister, and so on.
They were all nice to me, but I found that I would not be able to live up to their ‘expectations’. If I did, I would fall afoul of my own convictions. At my time, the CBI director’s post was not a tenured one and was at the pleasure of the Government. It was only after I left did it become a tenured post.
I am not a very ambitious or proud man, and I practise humility. But I believe in one couplet of Goswami Tulsidas. When a bhakta asked him if he had got rid of his pride completely, being a saint of such a high order, he said he would search his heart and get back to him. The next day, he said, “I have got rid of my sense of pride and ambition, but there is one element of pride I still have that I do not want to dispense with.” He said: “Main sewak Raghupati prabhu more/ As abhimaan jaayi jani bhore (I am proud of the fact that I served Lord Rama)”.
I carry a sense of pride that I have served the people of this country. This idealism is a gift from my school in Netarhat, which taught us that we are here to serve not only our immediate kith and kin, but people at large. Being a small man, what else can I do? There were no world wars to fight, or Taj Mahals to make. But to the best of my capabilities I can serve and discharge my official duties.
So I told the authorities that they should find someone who could toe their line. I was not that person. At that time, Manas Bezbaruah was director of the Enforcement Directorate. He had been shifted and there was a lot of hullabaloo in the media about his sudden transfer. Then, under a court order, he had to be reinstated. So there was a lurking apprehension with the powers that be that I may seek the same recourse if they shifted me. I assured them that I would not go to court, or lobby, and I would be happy with whatever they decided.
There are no powers that come with any post, including that of the head of the nation’s primary investigating agency. There are only responsibilities and duties. The power is with the people who delegate that authority.
The CBI has three major areas of investigation. In two areas, there’s hardly any meddling from the top. As far as middle and lower level public sector undertaking officers are concerned, whether they are involved in trap cases, disproportionate assets cases or corruption, there’s no interference. No one is interested in them; everyone wants them behind bars.
Then there are conventional cases such as murders, riots and so on. These cases are initially handled by state governments and only when they fail to meet the people’s expectations or popular demand arises for a CBI investigation are they assigned either by the states or the courts to the CBI. Again, in these cases, 99 per cent of the time there is no interference from the Central executive. Of course, some old acquaintance may come up with a request that a certain person has been unnecessarily embroiled in the case and say, “Kindly look into it please.”
However, there is tremendous media pressure in these cases. For example, the Raja Bhaiya case, which involved the murder of Deputy Superintendent of Police Zia-ul-Haq. The media created an impression that Raja Bhaiya was involved in it. But crime investigators did not come across any prosecutable evidence. Things such as guesswork or intuition is not evidence, it cannot be the basis for prosecution. But media exposure is always at the back of the mind of investigators. They fear that if they do not measure up to their expectations, then there may be allegations of collusion with the powers that be. With that comes the pressure of solving the case quickly.
When the gang-rape case happened in Delhi, there were hourly media reports on such and such person not arrested so far. One cannot pull a rabbit out of the bag. In fact, the Delhi Police should have been complimented and commended for working out the case and arresting the criminals so quickly. But people unnecessarily bayed for the blood of Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar.
Barring such special cases, there’s hardly any interference. Here, the Government can surely ask for a progress report, but that’s not interference. The political interplay comes only when cases involve senior officers and ministers of the Central Government, or any Central organisation in which they have a stake. Then, there is tremendous pressure—‘Do it in this manner’ or ‘you have to take this line’.
Earlier, it used to be done in a more subtle and polished manner. The authorities would call to have a chat and tell you that ‘it is national security and the national interest will be served… these people are investing so much money in India, it will have an adverse impact if something is done against them’. They try to convince you theoretically and conceptually. But now, it has become more brazen.
In this third area, there has been interference earlier, and this time too [the Coalgate report vetting]. There are many examples, but I would not want to dwell upon them. I was told on my face, “Do it this way, mulq ko fayeda hoga (it’s in national interest).” It is against the law, I would protest. “Phir bhi dekh leejiye. (Still, look into it).” Finally I had to say, “I am sorry, mujh se nahin hoga (I can’t do it).”
This was the reason I got cheesed off with the post and got out of it. It was nice that they did not harass me, and I quit the job without any difficulty. My friends tell me that my name had been recommended for quite a few posts thereafter, but the powers that be told them that ‘he is an upright but uptight person’.
My entire stint is peppered with such compliments. When I was in Benares in the 1980s, I had lots of differences with former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Congress leader Kamalapati Tripathi’s family. They tried to get me transferred. When asked what was wrong with me, they said, “Kharaabi waraabi nahi hai, sunta nahin hai bilkul (He doesn’t listen to us at all).” The then Chief Minister Sripati Mishra told them, “We have not sent him to listen to you. He has been assigned to work. If there’s any fault in his work, we can take action.”
Towards the end of my career, I was posted as Director General, CISF, and then as Director General, CRPF. On 1 January 2002, I retired and I was a free man.
The best thing for the CBI would be to put it under the Judiciary. Right now, this is so only theoretically. Every investigation agency, including the local thana, is under the court’s jurisdiction. The thana is doing quasi-judicial work because every investigation helps the court. Even the Supreme Court decides criminal cases on the basis of an FIR written by a constable.
The National Police Commission has been crying itself hoarse for years to separate investigation agencies from law and order, traffic, from other duties. Let them be placed under a judicial supervisor. Let a high court administrative judge supervise vigilance, the CID and so on. In Karnataka, the Lokpal looks after the Anti-Corruption Bureau, and vigilance side, it has been functioning independently. A similar arrangement can be made for the CBI. It need not be a part of the Supreme Court, but a judge from the SC can be appointed to supervise it.
Since the agency is supposed to handle various kinds of cases, the CBI director or supervisor should be granted full freedom on staff matters. They should be able to recruit an expert from the open market, like a financial expert, a chartered accountant, cyber expert, technologist, etcetera. It should be a police organisation with proper resources.
The CBI should be turned into a modern and capable organisation. It is a great institution, so it should be independent and fair and efficient. Have your thana and local CIDs, perhaps, but keep the CBI separate. Let people have one organisation in which they can repose their faith. And if the chief of such an organisation is involved in misconduct, heads should roll. He should be given stringent punishment.
Current CBI Director Ranjit Sinha has shown guts by coming out [on the Coalgate affair] truthfully and clearly. Many people would never have been able to do what Sinha did. As for me, I would not have gone to that meeting with Union ministers on the Coalgate report at all. They could have done whatever they wanted.